Use of 'OK'er' at The New Yorker
Mary Norris herself has written about the job of "OK'er," in Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015):
That [February 6, 1978, when she began working at The New Yorker] was more than thirty-five years ago. And it has now been more than twenty years since I became a page OK'er—a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press. An editor once called us prose goddesses; another job description might be comma queen.
I made my first big catch as a foundry proofreader in one of the Christmas shopping columns. The writer was in the basement of Bloomingdale's, shopping for food staples, and she had included in the list sacks of sugar and "flower." I circled the interior we and brought it out to the margin and suggested u, putting a question mark next to it, as I had been taught. The question mark was necessary not because there was any doubt that the writer meant "flour" instead of "flower" but because I was inserting something that had not been on the Reader's proof: that is, something that the OK'er, the proofreader of record, might have overlooked. If the typesetter made a mistake, you corrected it, no questions asked. But if a mistake had been carried over, the question mark on the foundry proof alerted the editor and the proofreader to something that might have slipped through.
Ben Yagoda, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2001), describing an era at the magazine some thirty years before Norris arrived on the scene, has this to say about okayer:
In his quest for perfection [William] Shawn found a strong ally in Eleanor Gould Packard, who had come to work at the magazine in 1945 and soon afterward married fact-checker Freddie Packard. "Miss Gould" (as Shawn and the rest of the office called her even after her marriage) was officially a manuscript "okayer," or final reader, but her acuity, indeed, brilliance, in matters of syntax and logic led her to a first untitled and then official (as official as job titles ever got at the New Yorker, anyway) job as chief "grammarian" at the magazine. Eventually, her name became a verb, as one spoke of a manuscript being "Goulded."
(Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that (1) OK'er and okayer may be the same job title but they sure aren't spelled the same way, and (2) Norris refers to the magazine as "The New Yorker" while Yagoda calls it "the New Yorker." This never would have happened in Miss Gould's day.)
If Yagoda's depiction is accurate, okayer/OK'er has been in use at The New Yorker for more than seventy-five years. In the 1940s, Yagoda says, it meant "final reader"—a person who performed a post-proofreading read of articles before the went to press. In Norris's time, it seems to refer to a somewhat different role (probably because at least some of the layers of safety netting had been removed from the process for economic reasons). In any case, most publishers today have long since dispensed with such niceties as "fact checkers," "proofreaders," and even "copy editors," leaving such unfathomable redundancies as "second proofreader," "foundry proofreader," and of course "prose goddess" as the near-mythic entourage of a more error-averse world of publishing.
I can vouch for Norris's remark that okayer/OK'er is not a term widely used in publishing outside The New Yorker. In my 35 years as a copy editor, I've never heard it used as a job title.
Google Books matches for the noun 'okayer'
A Google Books search does find a few other instances of okayer as a professional position or status. (A comparable search for OK'er turned up zero matches besides Norris.) One very early discussion of the word appears in Edward Teall, Putting Words to Work: A Lively Guide to Correct and Vigorous English (1940) [combined snippets]:
In speaking of the person who puts the final approval on outgoing mail, how would you refer to him? Could you say "the O. K.'er"? And what would be the verb form: "O. K.'ing," "O. K.'d"? Would you say that you have "the O.K.'s," meaning several O. K.'d papers?
I certainly would not. I use the form "okay," which makes it possible to to build all these words without apostrophes and other apparatus: okays, okayer, okaying, okayed.
I write "O.K.-ing." What do you think of that style?
It's just a shade better than "O.K.'ing." Both forms are awkward. They have an excessive conscientiousness which makes them look painfully calculated, unnatural. It is much better to make a word out of it. To put an okay on a paper is to okay it. The person who does the okaying is an okayer, and when he has finished with the paper it is okayed. Smooth? I think so.
Predictably, one of the earliest match for okayer as a noun uses it as the equivalent of "rubber stamper." From Broadcasting, volume 20 (1941):
Stymied by a stolid Egyptian disinterest in American radiomen, Schechter wound up with only a description of the coronation ceremonies, instead of a promised speech by the King. Even he [Schechter], veteran okayer of prodigious expense vouchers, knew it would take a lot of explaining to justify his trip to the land of the Nile.
A more critical (though not necessarily more useful) sort of vetting appears to be going on in American Business, volume 15 (1945) [combined snippets]:
He is the kind of fellow who wants reports on all activities, even though he should be able to see what's going on. He's the greatest "okayer" in the whole organization. No paper has any merit unless his "OK" and initials appear on it.
Every move must await his personal okay. If he happens to be late some morning his entire staff marks time until he can come in and put his hallowed initials on a batch of papers.
In State v. Linam (New Mexico Court of Appeals (1977), "okayer" appears to be a serious and important role handled by a retail store manager who approves or rejects checks submitted for payment to sales clerks at the store. The majority opinion in that court case states:
In State v. Tooke, supra, there was no transfer of rights in the check. More was to be done before the checkout clerk would accept the check. The check had to be approved by an "okayer." That was a physical transfer but not a transfer of any interest. It was a requirement of the store prior to permitting any transfer of interest. There was no expectation that the "okayer" would cash the check. No interest was intended to pass. It was nothing more than preparation.
But a judge concurring in the judgment writes:
The majority opinion distinguishes State v. Tooke, 81 N.M. 618, 471 P.2d 188 (Ct.App. 1970). This is a distinction without a difference. In Tooke, the defendant was convicted of attempted forgery because the defendant presented a forged check in a store. The check-out clerk asked the "okayer" to ascertain its validity. The "okayer" had physical possession of the check. This physical transfer to the "okayer" was not a passing of any interest in the check. This was attempted forgery.
In the instant case, defendant presented the check to the bank teller. This was a transfer of interest. The defendant was guilty of forgery.
The "okayer" in the store, and the bank teller in the bank were virtually identical. They were store/bank agents with authority to tender money to defendants in exchange for the check. There was or there was not a transfer of interest. Both defendants would be guilty of the same offense either attempted forgery or actual forgery.
And finally we have this from Jim Townsend, Romans: Let Justice Roll Down (1988):
God is the Okayer. He is the One who has taken the initiative to set things straight, although we humans were the ones who took the initiative in messing things up (Gen. 3).
Townsend doesn't discuss God's feelings about prose goddesses.